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Nuns Show Ways of Talking to Ill Seniors

Nuns caring for cognitively impaired elderly sisters in a Midwestern convent talked to their beneficiaries in striking ways, a linguistic anthropologist, Anna Corwin, pointed out.

These nuns do not use “elderspeak” -- a simple, loud, slow, common and patronizing way of baby talk for the elderly.

In contrast, they told stories, jokes and blessed the sick sisters as they talk as if those other nuns were not sick.

Corwin, in a phone interview (as reported on CBC News), reiterated how she appreciated seeing those nuns as they accept decline and value the individual inherently.

Corwin observed them and the infirm nuns from 2008 to 2013 (for a total of 10 months).

As was published in The Gerontologist, Corwin scrutinized the verbal interactions the caregiving sisters in 26 visits. Three visited 12 sick sisters ages 81 to 92 in their rooms where they were lying down in reclined chairs or bedridden. The visits lasted from 10 to 25 minutes each.

Those in the infirmary had Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, stroke, aphasia, and neurological deterioration. All of them had impaired or limited ability to communicate. The caregivers sometimes held the sick nuns’ hands, and they massaged their legs too.

In her entire research period, Corwin noted how she noticed a limited use of elderspeak as the caregivers interacted with the frail nuns. Elderspeak is the way of talking to the elderly by using terms of endearment like dear, sweetie, and others, and can convey a signal of incompetence to the patients. This, in turn, can likewise result to cognitive decline and social isolation according to previous research.

Through this study, caregivers from various institutions may be able to learn more about caring for various clientele -- that to include elders of various backgrounds and cultures. Home care services can acquire such helpful techniques when dealing with their patients too.


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